You know, they say this project is hush-hush, but you ask Alec Holland one question and you get a five-minute lecture about plant nuclei and world hunger. I guess nobody ever asked, or maybe there just wasn’t room for them to stand, on this crappy laboratory set.
As Alice Cable’s snub-nosed motorboat glides through the swamp towards her next assignment, two nearby water birds squeal and take flight, giving her a mild startle.
“Weird, isn’t it?” says her colleague. “Local fishermen say this place is haunted.” By birds?
Handing her new hostile work environment a desultory glower, Cable misquotes a movie. “I don’t know where we are, Toto,” she mutters, “but it sure isn’t Kansas.”
Her colleague leans forward. “What?”
“Nothing,” she says, and bats at a passing gnat. And that, strangely enough, is another step in Alice Cable’s full-on charm offensive, which takes up the first twelve minutes of the movie.
Rick didn’t say “Play it again, Sam,” and Kirk never said “Beam me up, Scotty.” Darth Vader said “No, I am your father,” and Brody said “You’re going to need a bigger boat.”
Do you feel lucky, punk? Houston, we have a problem. I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille. Top of the world, Ma! Why don’t you come up and see me sometime?
A lot of the phrases that we pick up from pop culture as famous movie quotes are actually slight misquotes, often making them a little shorter and simpler, because on the whole people are not that good at remembering dialogue. Exact wording fades quickly, and so do plot points and character relationships.
But we’re great at remembering a striking visual, and most of the things that we consider “iconic” are compelling images, like Claudette Colbert showing her legs in It Happened One Night, or Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs in Basic Instinct, or a steam vent blowing up Marilyn Monroe’s skirt to reveal her legs in The Seven Year Itch. A lot of them involve women’s legs, for some reason.
So when Superman: The Movie introduces the new version of Lex Luthor that we talked about yesterday, there are a lot of alterations to the comic book character that for the most part audiences don’t notice. The movie version of Luthor has sidekicks and a sense of humor, which has never really happened before, and he presents himself as an eccentric businessman, rather than a mad scientist — but for movie audiences, those are details that they don’t know about.
The one thing that people do notice is that Lex Luthor is supposed to be bald, because we remember interesting visuals. The details of his characterization don’t really stick in the mind, but even people who’ve never read a Superman comic in their life know that Luthor doesn’t have any hair.
All right, folks: we are five weeks into the blog and thirty-eight minutes into the movie, and we’re finally getting out of Smallville. We’ll spend next week in the Fortress of Solitude, and then we’re heading for Metropolis, I promise.
The structure of this movie can be fairly challenging, especially for the modern viewer, because it takes so long to get to what people expect a Superman movie to be about. We first get a glimpse of Christopher Reeve as Superman at minute 47, and even then it’s only for one shot. We don’t really get the full “Clark Kent changes to Superman and does something heroic” until 68 minutes into the movie, which is a long time to wait, if you’re not prepared for it.
The simple answer for why there’s such a long prologue is that that’s how the story is supposed to go — you have to understand that the character came from Krypton, and grew up on Earth, to know who he is and what he’s about. But in the first issue of Action Comics, that was all taken care of in the first few panels; by the top of page 2, Superman was haring across the countryside, dropping off bound-and-gagged ladies on people’s front lawns.
It’s not like the filmmakers didn’t have a choice. You could easily imagine a movie that begins with a big spectacular Superman rescue, and then the backstory is handled in a five-minute flashback. As far as the plot is concerned, this three-part prologue is just dead weight; once we reach Metropolis, nothing happens that requires the audience to know that Clark wasn’t allowed to play football when he was in high school. You could watch the entire movie without knowing about the Phantom Zone or the Fortress of Solitude — both of those pay off when you watch the sequel, but you can go from 47:00 to 2:23:00 without them, and you’d hardly miss them.
So if they could have condensed this backstory down — making the movie shorter, cheaper and faster-paced — then why didn’t they?
Around dawn, Clark wakes from a restless slumber and there’s a hum somewhere — some high, electric, pulsing hum coming from the general barn area, and it gets louder, the longer he thinks about it. Something’s out there, something that was buried a long time ago.
People should always dig up mystery boxes, it’s just good protocol. If somebody went to all the trouble to bury their secrets deep in the earth, then obviously it’s supposed to be dug up and exposed to the open air again. Nine times out of ten, something terrible happens, but you never know, you might be the lucky one.
It’s December 15th — just before Christmas, 1978 — and Clark is unwrapping his gift ten days early. Inside, he finds a little green lightsaber, which is literally the thing that every kid in America is hoping for this year.
This is the Call to Adventure, and if you’ve got your Joseph Campbell Hero with a Thousand Faces bingo card handy, you can cross that one off the list. This is the hero venturing forth from the world of common day, aka this wheat field, into a region of supernatural wonder, aka the North Pole, where he’ll get Supernatural Aid and/or Cross the First Threshold, and then go into the Belly of the Whale and set out on the Road of Trials, which I think is the Daily Planet typing test. Unless the Belly of the Whale was the space capsule, of course, in which case the Road of Trials was probably running faster than the train, and now it’s time to meet Woman as the Temptress. Which is probably Lois, but at the moment she’s only nine years old, so it might be somebody else.
Well, today’s the day that we get all this figured out. It’s time for us to ask whether Superman: The Movie follows Joseph Campbell’s model of the Hero’s Journey, as an example of the universal monomyth. The answer, obviously, is of course it fucking doesn’t.
“Once, there was a civilization,” says the announcer in the Superman: The Movie trailer, over a shot of Jor-El doing science stuff with crystals, “much like ours, but with greater intelligence, greater powers, and a greater capacity for good.”
Jor-El touches the machine, and the starship rises to the ceiling, and then everything goes to hell. We see people fall into the red pit of their doomed civilization, and then: BLAM! the whole planet explodes.
“In one tragic moment,” the announcer resumes, “that world was destroyed. But there was one survivor.” We see Kal-El in the star bubble, a brief clip of the crash landing, and then Pa Kent is kicking at his tire. Ma taps him on the shoulder, and they look at the wreck of the spaceship.
As they gaze in wonder, the announcer says, “Because of the wisdom and compassion of Jor-El — because he knew the human race had the capacity for goodness — he sent us his only son.”
The music swells, and we see little K, standing up with his arms outstretched, and we wonder: if Jor-El was so all-fired wise and compassionate, maybe he could also have sent some pants?
From “Godfather” to “Superfather”? Marlon Brando has been offered a reported “unprecedented” salary to play the father — or older brother — of “Superman” for Alexander Salkind. (Variety, June 30, 1976)
The two Superman films, to be lensed simultaneously, will ring up a super budget of $25-30,000,000. Of that figure, $2,700,000, goes to Marlon Brando who plays papa to “Superman”. (Variety, Dec 27, 1976)
Even Brando, long-famed for his temperament, posed no problems. Perhaps even he could hardly believe the money he was being paid for his 12 days — $2.5 million, the most expensive salary on record. (LA Times, July 31, 1977)
We’ve read that white-wigged Marlon Brando, for just 12 days of work as Jor-El, Superman’s father on the planet Krypton, snagged $2.7 million or $3.7 million or $4 million. (New York Times, December 10, 1978)
There are a handful of stories that make up the core mythology of Superman: The Movie — the dinner in Paris, the lollipop, the dentist, the workout, the flying unit, the extra director. But the most important and enduring story — the thing that everyone is sure to mention when they talk about the movie — is Brando and the money.